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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – With few exceptions compared to Bill Belichick’s 22 years as coach of the New England Patriots, he has not relied on a lead that runs back.
Belichick’s selection approach has often frustrated fantasy football managers, and as championships are soon to be decided, it will happen again in 2021. But in real-life football, the two-is-better-than-one approach has been a catalyst for the Patriots’ six-game winning streak. they go into Monday night’s away game against the Buffalo Bills (20:15 ET, ESPN).
Especially the last two matches have been telling.
Damien Harris has started. So in the second series, rookie Rhamondre Stevenson comes into play. Harris takes over the next series. So Stevenson.
It’s been a true series-by-series rotation – Harris finished with 47 shots and Stevenson 42.
“It’s one of the better 1-2 shots in the league,” said starting right tackle Trent Brown. “Both guys run hard, run hard. And they make us look good up front.”
They also help rookie quarterback Mac Jones stay out of injury, which has helped him grow. An added bonus: A productive running game sets up passing opportunities where Jones has been lethal at times.
5-foot-11, 213-pound Harris, a 2019 pick in the third round from Alabama, leads the Patriots with 154 carries for 643 yards (4.2 averages) and eight touchdowns.
The 6-foot, 226-pound Stevenson, a 2021 fourth-round pick from Oklahoma, has 76 carries for 351 yards (4.6) and three touchdowns.
“They’re fantastic. Mondre have come on the field, especially the last couple of games. Damien has been very consistent, but they just balance each other really well,” said veteran tight-end Hunter Henry.
“They’re both great. They both have great views. Cuts. Speed. They have everything you want. They also catch the ball out of the backfield. It’s fun to block the guys that way because they make your the job a little easier. “
Harris and Stevenson mate with “pass back” Brandon Bolden, who usually comes in at third down. The ball has filled the void created by veteran James White’s season-ending injury on October 17.
“We have confidence in all of our backs. They have all been productive,” Belichick said.
ESPN Monday Night Football analyst Louis Riddick sees all three contributing in different ways.
“Harris is leading the way as a runner with his physical ability. The ball is the one they seem to trust in the passing game in terms of protection and consistency that blocks. And Stevenson is the guy who is the most talented who will get better than both the other two who run and receive, “said Riddick. “[Stevenson] has every single tool you are looking for – size, speed, agility, hands. He is still rising and will play a bigger and bigger and bigger role as time goes on. “
The Patriots enter Monday’s game with an average of 115.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks 12th in the NFL. Their 4.1 average yards per. rush is number 19, but does not necessarily reflect how the running game helps them assert a physical presence that has become an essential part of their offensive identity.
“The way they’ve played is emblematic of the way the whole team has played, with great effort, attention to detail and execution once your number has been dialed,” said starting left-back Ted Karras about Harris and Stevenson. “The two have been a big part of why we’ve been successful recently.”
Belichick often says that any decision he makes is in the interest of helping the team win, and he can point to 2004 as a shining example of his willingness to lean on a lead that runs backwards. It was the year Corey Dillon collected 345 carries for 1,635 yards, which remains the franchise’s record in a single season.
There have been other years where most of the early workload went in the direction of a single back – such as Stevan Ridley’s 290 carries in 2012 and LeGarrette Blounts 299 in 2016 – but Belichick has traditionally advocated for more of a committee.
He said last week that there is no specific reason for these decisions, which Harris and Stevenson say they embrace.
– NFL (@NFL) November 28, 2021
“It’s been great, to be honest,” Harris said. “Clearly, rotation keeps the guys fresh, allows us to keep going out there to perform and play well. In the end, we’re all in this – everyone on this team has a role, everyone has a job to do. So no matter what your name is, you have to go out and do a play. We all play for each other. “
Stevenson, a Las Vegas native who was named excellent offensive player in the 2020 Cotton Bowl after rushing 18 times for 186 yards and a touchdown in the Sooners’ 55-20 victory over Florida, said the all-for-one mindset is his favorite aspect of the Patriots.
“I enjoy doing that, especially with my boy Damien. I feel like Damien and I complement each other’s games very well. I think it’s a nice change,” he said. “And Brandon is back there too. It’s fun, we all have a chance to do what we’re best at. We all bring a little bit of a different running style to the table.”
Their willingness to share the burden has earned them respect from the coaching staff.
“They’re really good teammates and work really well together,” said assistant running back coach Vinnie Sunseri. “They’ve filled those roles. They embrace it.”
To own their faults
Harris and Stevenson have overcome adversity earlier this season to establish themselves as a potent tandem.
– NFL (@NFL) October 17, 2021
Harris lost a fumble late in the fourth quarter of a shocking 17-16 season opener home loss to the Miami Dolphins as the team ran after a potential winning score. Immediately after the match, at a time when some players might have chosen to avoid talking to reporters, Harris was in front and said he would not let the fumble define him.
Stevenson also fumbled in that game and missed a blitz pickup, which led to him being benched in three games. He was back in the lineup in two races, but was so surprisingly inactive October 24 against the New York Jets, which running back coach Ivan Fears suggested was a result of him continuing to adapt to the demands of the team’s tough driving culture. Stevenson has been back the last five games and continues to build momentum.
“Each of their situations is unique, and it’s clear that their travels this year have been very different,” said longtime captain Matthew Slater, the team’s longest-serving player.
“Rhamondre … he has been trained really hard and I think he has responded very well to that. He has remained humble enough to receive coaching and he keeps improving. That’s all you can ask about from a young player.
“Damien had some tough breaks early in the year, but I don’t think his approach has ever changed … He did a good job of putting it behind him. It’s football. Things like that are going to happen.”
Belichick referred to Harris and Stevenson as “bigger, physical guys,” and Jones said combining them with a solid offensive line by Isaiah Wynn, Karras, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Brown is the basis of the attack.
Back Jakob Johnson brings a physical advantage when the Patriots put him in the lineup, and the close ends – led by Henry and Jonnu Smith – are of course part of the running blocking mix.
It has been common to see Harris and Stevenson steaming forward and plowing over defenders, which can be galvanizing.
“When they finish races that way, it just makes you want to block a little extra, do a little extra because you know those guys finish hard,” Henry said. “They’re going to make plays, so if you just hold your block a little longer, a big play can come.”